3 Secrets to Creating Great Characters

Human beings are complicated creatures.

So are characters.

Yet the creation of great characters can be surprisingly simple.

Sure, you’ll eventually discover ways to layer your characters with depth and nuance. But as you plan and draft your story, you need to be laser-focused on these 3 simple and effective character traits to begin telling a powerful story.

1. A Physical Goal

The first thing you need to know about your character is his/her Physical Goal.

A character’s Physical Goal must be a measurable, tangible, attainable Physical Goal. 

There are two reasons why the goal must be physical. First, the character needs to be chasing something he/she can get ahold of. Second, the reader will need a way to measure whether or not the character has gotten what is wanted.

A Physical Goal? I hear some of you crying. How shallow! Stories are about so much MORE!!! 

Of course stories are about so much more than a physical goal.

But what makes your story MORE won’t be there for quite awhile. It hasn’t been created yet, and it can’t be created until your characters have been brought to life.

What must absolutely be in your plan and drafts is a protagonist pursuing a goal that is physically obtainable. Otherwise, he/she won’t be chasing anything and the story won’t move.

Perhaps you are in the middle of a project and your story-telling momentum is sputtering. Think back on the earliest days of its creation: Did you give your characters, especially the protagonist, a clear physical goal to chase? Or did you begin with a point you were trying to make, perhaps about life, or politics, or justice, or race, or gender equality, or religion?

What gets a story going isn’t an idea, or a message, or a “point”.

What gets a story going is WANT.

What gets a story going is LACK.

What gets a story going is PAIN.

And all of these are summed up by the most familiar of feelings: DESIRE (which, as you probably deduced, is the birth of a GOAL).

This is the first and most essential trait for beginning your story, and it will lead to the creation of great characters.

2. A Surprising Motivation

“Why?”

It’s every six year-old’s favorite question.

It should also be YOUR question when exploring each characters’ Motivation.

While most goals are common and unsurprising, Motivation is an area where you, the story-teller, take total control. Motivation provides the “WHY” and contextualizes the Physical Goal.

Motivation must be surprising because people, especially readers, are skilled cynics and judges of character.

In a market glutted with “commercial” fiction and rampant clichés, unique character Motivations will set your work apart better than witty writing or graphic content. A cliché is merely an ordinary Goal paired with an overused and obvious Motivation. To dodge this loathed trap, it is best to conjure a Surprising Motivation that will intrigue your readers and keep them guessing.

Now don’t mistake “surprising” for shocking or irrational. A character shouldn’t want paper money because he’s run out of toilet tissue. Rather, by “Surprising,” I mean “MULTI-LAYERED.”

At first, your character will want what he/she wants because of the goal’s obvious benefits. Money provides immediate comfort and power, just as love provides solace and pleasure.

But beneath these immediate “surface” motivations must lie deeper, possibly contradictory Surprising Motivations. This often derives from the character’s past or some ulterior goal – a goal he/she may not even be aware of.

When planning your story and cutting those first drafts, begin at least with the obvious “surface” Motivation; but, as you do, always be conjuring possible deeper and contradictory Motivations that will surprise you and your reader.

3. A Crippling Weakness

How good would a story be if the character had a Goal, whatever his Motivations may be, and obtained it instantly?

For a story to work, the character must want what he/she cannot currently possess. Otherwise, there’d be no story.

A child wants the privileges of adulthood, but is stuck in fifth grade.

A woman wants to be an Olympian, but a car accident has robbed her of the power to walk.

A man longs to own his own company, but crushing debt stands in his way.

Every character must be hindered by a Crippling Weakness that prevents him/her from obtaining the Physical Goal – at least for now.

And if you are wise, you will consider all forms of weakness. A physical disability need not be the only means of blocking someone from a Physical Goal. In stories, as in life, weakness is often found in flimsy self-discipline or deep-seeded flaws .

Crippling Weakness, like Motivation, can be a well of cliché, and it is your prerogative to avoid those that have been overdone, or at least poorly done.

Thankfully, however, most weakness clichés come in the form of very pronounced disabilities, the stuff of Academy Award nominees: autism, amputations, and morbid ugliness, for example. Avoid these, unless you plan to keep the grocery aisle stocked with pulp. You can easily do better without losing any sweat.

The Power of the Three

Your story will only be as interesting as the interplay between your characters’ Goals, Motivations, and Weaknesses.

This is true of life. We want what we cannot have and we strive to compensate for our failures and faults. This ultimately has a powerful and palpable effect on what we want, why we want it, and how we overcome our obstacles, physical and non-physical.

Beginning with a Physical Goal that the character cannot currently possess will drive you to create scenes of conflict that reveal the messy underbelly of his/her consciousness.

Why does he/she want this? you must ask.

How is this desire flawed?

What does he/she really want?

This is where depth and nuance are born – in the creation of your characters, based on existing Goals, Motivation, and Weakness.

It may be tempting to try to begin with depth and nuance. But this is foolish. Take, for example, these “deep” goals.

Brad wants his life to mean something. 

Stacy needs to rediscover her self-confidence. 

These kinds of goals, while true-to-life, aren’t immediately measurable, nor do they establish the basis of a story. While they speak of emotional emptiness, they don’t provide a source of physical pain, and therefore, physical desire.

Without physical desire, there is no movement.

No action.

No story. 

Without a Physical Goal, how will you, and therefore your reader, know that the character has obtained what he or she wants? It will require massive time to exhaustively reverse-engineer your story, picking through it to find a tangible Physical Goal somewhere and implement its role in the journey. That’s a lot of time you’ll never get back.

Rather, these deeper goals must be revealed by a flawed pursuit of some physical thing. And you have to do it from the start of the story-telling process.

Back to Brad, who wants his life to mean something. This is horribly open-ended. Beginning here, you’d be tempted to write a “bus stop scene,” the kind of crap where Brad sits at a bus stop and talks to a stranger about his meaningless life.

But what if you began with a Physical Goal?

Brad has to travel across the country to his father’s funeral and say good-bye after years of estrangement. Beneath this simple arc are incredibly heavy non-physical stakes; yet the story hinges on something that is 100% measurable: His physical presence at a ceremony, at an appointed time and place.

The nuance will practically write itself.

Stacy, who wishes to rediscover her self-confidence, cannot do so in a vacuum or a coffee shop. Don’t do what I did and write a 80-page play filled with conversations and ideas that were deep and meaningful – and agonizing to read.

Stacy needs a story. 

And to give her a story, she needs a Physical Goal that she can’t get. Does she want a faithful boyfriend? Is she struggling to stand up to her misogynistic boss? Perhaps she, too, must attend an important event and confront deep wounds from the past.

No matter what path you plan to take, it must aim for and arrive at a physical destination.

These 3 Character Traits work in beautiful harmony to fuel your creative process and give birth to great, vibrant, dynamic, meaningful characters. Each individual Trait contributes to the development and maturity of the others; none can exist alone.

And as you practice them and take risks with them, these 3 simple but amazing Character Traits will yield story-telling of incredible depth and authentic nuance that will keep your reader raving and consuming everything you write, for years to come.

What do you think? How have Physical Goals, Surprising Motivations, and Crippling Weaknesses helped you create effective characters? 

Cover image: Kris Krug, Creative Commons

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